The Hill and the City – Creating GH Readers
Speech delivered at Reading Spots Conference
10 August 2018
The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out, and after an era of darkness new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again and yet live on, still young, still fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead. ~ Clarence Day
In this era of information explosion, it is a real tragedy if the Scripture ‘…my people perish for lack of knowledge’ should apply to anyone. My friend Geoff Anno asserts that ‘If six months from now, you do not know twice what you know now, you will be left behind.’ And I agree with him. There are a great many people today who stopped learning the moment they finished ‘school’: University, Polytechnic, secondary School, vocational school, et cetera. They just stopped learning.
Learning is acquiring knowledge or developing the ability to perform new behaviours. It is common to think of learning as something that takes place in school, but much of human learning occurs outside the classroom, and people continue to learn throughout their lives. The best and longest lasting school is the school of life, the Self-Tuition school.
Continuous learning, sadly, has ceased to be a national character. Knowledge is power, it is said, and this power must be searched for daily, a truly continuous process.
There are four common methods of learning continuously, as follows: by experience, by observation, by listening and by reading.
Today, we want to talk about reading. How do we build citizens who learn continuously, through reading? How do we ensure that the wisdom in the hills of knowledge around us trickles to the city? How do we create a reading nation, knowing that a reading nation is a thinking nation and a thinking nation will evolve into one with citizens who are forward-looking, not mediocre, anchored to the rock yet geared to the times, not gullible?
The great men of our world have been readers; they have been learners. Jesus read, and it showed in His sermons. Paul was well read. Nkrumah read. Martin Luther King Jnr read. Abraham Lincoln didn’t have what you would call a formal education, but he taught himself through reading. He actually studied law books he found at the base of items he had bought at an auction, and he became a great and effective lawyer and President of the United States of America. Lincoln talked of his love of books: ‘The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read.’ One of the all-time great Presidents of America, Theodore Roosevelt, read. He was reported to have died with a book under his pillow.
In February 2016, my business partner and friend Kofi Akpabli and I treated an audience to a book reading event at the SyTris Bookshop near the A&C Mall. The event was organised by Writers’ Project of Ghana. As I entered the venue with my family, my children exclaimed, “Wow! So many books to choose from, we don’t know which one to choose!” Each of them picked books, with Nana Kwame picking a condensed edition of a book series he had been borrowing from his friend next door.
They set me back by some good Ghana cedis when we left after the event, but my heart was warm, knowing that my wife and I had succeeded in making our children excited about books and reading. So how did we get onto this path of making readers out of my children? I said ‘path’, because I don’t consider that my wife and I have reached yet – it is a journey.
The answer to that question, for me, goes way back to my upbringing, to Kotobabi. Maybe, even before that. Even before I was born.
My father was educated only to Middle School Leaving Certificate Level. My mum just about the same.
But both of them were great believers in the power of education. In my mum’s tribute at my dad’s funeral in 2006, she recalled that my father always insisted that his kids were his houses. On many occasions, he told us that education is everything, and sought to encourage us to go the farthest in our pursuit of knowledge. He said that if he had used the money he spent on our education on houses, he would have had many houses!! My dad taught himself further after school, in the Army and through books. He read a lot and passed on his love of books to me as well. Anytime I went to visit him in the village, I was certain to send magazines (Time magazine, BBC Focus on Africa) to him. At the time of his funeral, I still had the order form I had filled to subscribe BBC Focus on Africa magazine for him. In the village, he subscribed to the Daily Graphic, Mirror and Graphic Sports. And he had lots of books that I devoured.
My parents read. My father nurtured in me the love of magazines, newspapers and books. I got from him the practice of walking to buy The Mirror every weekend and we would spend time reading it together. I caught him reading and caught the bug while at that. When my mum visits us today in Tema, I walk into her room to greet her every morning and to ask how she is doing. I always find her reading her Bible. My parents taught me to read and inspired in me the desire to be more learned than they ever were. I caught the reading bug from my parents. And from my teachers such as Mr Edem, who we call Brother. Today, this man still buys books from my bookstore Booknook.store. Right from Aflao, so I dispatch to him by bus. The man is still influencing me over 30 years since I left his hands.
Today, you complain that Ghanaians don’t read. Are you reading yourself? Do your children catch you reading? When was the last time you read any book apart from the Bible you read weekly in church or daily during your devotion?
Today, how many children see their parents reading anything apart from their text messages, WhatsApp and Facebook messages? How do we expect to raise reading children when parents don’t read?
So In 2015, Kofi Akpabli and I came together and gave ourselves two targets: do regular (preferably quarterly) public book readings and extend the reading sessions beyond Accra. Our first collaboration, however, was in 2011 when we had a joint book signing event at Sytris Bookshop, Osu, Accra. Our first public reading was in January 2015 when we read at a venue called Totally Youth, owned by the late Eva Lokko, which she gave out for free for such events. We read from 10 am till 5pm and had about 4 reading sessions – hence the name ReadAThon: A Reading Marathon. So far, we have done multiple readings in Accra and Tema, and gone to Ho, Tarkwa, Takoradi and Kumasi with the Readathon. Last year, we were in Lagos, Nigeria and Monrovia, Liberia.
With eleven (11) books between us including popular titles Tickling the Ghanaian, I Speak of Ghana, Romancing Ghanaland and Sebitically Speaking, we set on this mission to make reading hip again, and to take writing and reading to the level of pop culture. Elsewhere, public readings and book signing are top-notch events that receive distinguished patronage. As society is pushing for the consumption of made-in-Ghana goods, we believe that we should not forget about made-in-Ghana books. It is our belief that this is a great vehicle of change, to help to literally fuel the literary drive across Ghana.
Our main focus: to make reading for pleasure hip again. Not only for the classroom.
So how do we get Ghana reading again? This has been a question on our minds as we continue our reading mission. I have asked this question a few times on my Facebook wall over the years and as I prepared for this conference, I asked again. A number of friends, some parents, shared their thoughts and I will be sharing some with you during the rest of this speech.
The question before us is simply this:
What are some of the ways and means we can use to get Ghana reading again?
I formed a Whatsapp group of parents who want to get their kids reading and we share ideas on there on this topic. Solely that, with strict rules about what to post and what not to post. Not your regular GH Whatsapp group where recycling is the rule. And we borrow books amongst ourselves, mostly for the children. On the bus to Techiman yesterday, one of our members – Abubakari Halidu, National Sales Director of AirtelTigo – shared a picture with these captions:
They asked her: “How did you persuade your child to read instead of playing with smart devices?”
She said: “Children don’t hear us, they imitate us.”
But first of all, let me state it unequivocally. As a parent – Get caught reading! Children do what we do and not necessarily what we say.
What legacy of knowledge acquisition are we leaving our children? Cicero noted that ‘To add a library to a house is to give that house a soul.’ I read somewhere that you can gauge how much a man loves knowledge by comparing the size of his library to the size of his television!
Over ten years ago, I saw a documentary on North Korea, which emphasised the life and role of the former Korean President, referred to as the ‘Great Leader’. One instruction the Great Leader gave to his country struck me, to wit: “A child should always have a book in his hands. He must read always. He should never be without a book, not even for a single day.” I agree with him.
We must get books into the hands of children. Start them early. Don’t be agree if they play with them and destroy them in the process – I have lots of books at home without their covers! With my children, I always had books around them. Of course, they saw us reading. Fortunately, they saw me writing too. And lately, as a bookseller, they see me selling books and they have greater choice! Downside being that they eat into my profits! During marriage counselling before marriage, our counsellors told us that we should always speak to them as adults, even when they were babies and not to use baby language, because children are smarter than we think. We took that to heart as parents. I took them to book launches and book readings. I took them to bookshops. Each time I travelled, I brought them books instead of sweets and candy and chocolate. These days, when I travel, they actually call me to remind me to bring them books. Airport bookshops always see me, and that is where I spend my per diem. We have enrolled them in a community library.
That has been my experience so far. Permit me to share with you now the thoughts of my friends on Facebook as they contributed to the question I posed. You will find that a number of them touched on what ReadingSpots is doing already – you are already contributing to the mission to get Ghana reading again!
Korklu Laryea, my big sister and friend, a librarian in Tarkwa actually called me and said: “Nana, tell them to start them early. Parents should read. They should read to the kids. They should not fight the technology (or challenge) that mobile phones and tablets bring. I download word games on my tablets and my nephews and nieces play with them, and learn more words. Parents should start reading to the children early.”
Kwame Owusu Nimako: Get them young. My first books at 6 years old turned me into a reader.
Efua Akwa-Yeboah: Charity begins at home. Parents investing in books…School libraries stocking relevant books. Local libraries…NGOs…local government involvement (Hello, ReadingSpots!)
Jennifer Nimako Boateng: Get them to develop an interest in reading from young age.
Emmanuel Asakinaba: For the teens who are yet to develop the habit, start with short colourful stories written in simple, not-too-literary language. We run a project in the Kassena-Nankana West District in the Upper East Region. We make available copies of the Junior Graphic and encourage them to read the short stories…We have seen considerable improvement in reading habits.
John Schaidler: Nana, I would love to discuss this further with you. Research suggests that one of the biggest factors that gets kids reading is choice. More books, more choice, more kids reading. Of course, great books that kids love make it easier, too. I also agree with Emmanuel above. Short, colorful, simple–engaging. As the saying goes, there are no reluctant readers, just kids that haven’t yet found the right books.
James Anquandah: We must establish community reading clubs in as many communities as possible (hello, ReadingSpots!), involve parents in these activities, encourage the production of more localized content to stock our libraries, schools and homes and make reading an activity and fun-based thing. If they enjoy the fun that comes with it, they will want to read more. If children have access to reading materials at home, in school and the library, we are assured that that generation will kickstart a reading revolution
Nana Esi Oppong-Boateng: Establishing community libraries.
Francis Appiah Acquaye: FreeBooks. I asked Francis, “Who pays for the production of the free books? Or the supply?” He responded by saying that “Government pays for production and BookNook.store pays for the supply.”
In response to Francis, James Anquandah wrote: Free books won’t solve the problem. Rather, let government commission local writers to produce content to stock all libraries. In this case, others get to read the same book and you promote a sort of communal reading culture. If you give them out, readers will stock them at home after reading when others may be disadvantaged. No writer, by the way, is willing to go through the tedious publishing process for free.
My comment on this was to refer to what the Canadian NGO CODE had done in Liberia where they commissioned local writers to write children’s books and distribute to schools.
Solomon Ofori-Atta: Start from the grass root…the children.
Jude Nii Otu Anim: Book Clubs!
Prince Alec Douglas Gaisie: When I was kid my father used to punish to go to my room and read and come out the next day. I was thinking he was punishing but by the I reached PRESEC form 1, I could read about three story books a day in addition to my learning. We must develop and motivate the children with different rewarding systems and they would catch up and they would never forget. We were having bed time story books.
Akosua Aboagyewaa Asiedu: We can do so by encouraging reading among the kids in preschools, by creating reading clubs (not those clubs that call themselves reading clubs but do everything else apart from reading) give the kids reading assignments which will in turn force the parents to help their kids to read(by so doing get themselves reading) and then give the deserving kids appropriate rewards so it becomes exciting. Starting with the kids can help.
Archibald Dadzie: It all down to parents to encourage their kids to develop the habit of reading. Read bedtime stories to your kids from birth and they will love story telling which will encourage them to read more. My son at age 10 read two books per week. Regulate the use of smart phones and tablets for playing games by kids and encourage them to read hard copies of story books
Pearl N Afua Acheampong: Organising periodic reading sessions at public spaces. Allowing young people share their stories and helping them refine their art. I would gladly be a volunteer.
Korklu Laryea: Parents reading to their children even before they start school makes a huge difference. A reading parent raises a reading family, I believe.
In response to Korklu, Ama Ewusiwaa wrote: Very true, did same with my daughter.
Great inputs, don’t you think? Not much to add except to say we must get serious with getting our public libraries operational and attractive. Many in my generation remember visiting public libraries as children. Many in our children’s generation haven’t been to any public library in their short lives. We have to remedy that. And quickly.
We are living in an era where everyone seems to have the urge, appetite and desire for fast things! Reading and appreciating what we read is fast becoming a practice of the past. And it is worrying. There is nothing that satisfies like a good book!
Allow me to end with this quote from Sir John Herschel: “Were I to pray for a taste which should stand me in good stead under every variety of circumstances and be a source of happiness and a cheerfulness to me during life and a shield against its ills, however things might go amiss and the world frown upon me, it would be a taste for reading.”
May we all be committed to building a Reading Ghana. Ghana must read again. And here, I salute what you are doing in Reading Spots and I wish you greater success! A special salute to the co-founders Cat Davison and Francis Yeboah – you guys have inspired me so much!
Let’s get caught reading and get our children reading. Ghana must read again. Ghana will read again. And we shall have the city coming to the wisdom hill, each with his or her container. For knowledge is free at the hill. Just bring your container.
Nana Awere Damoah